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Eugene Fram Headshot

Civil and Honest Discourse Needed for Nonprofit Boards

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In recent years, I have noted some nonprofit board meeting environments have been developing into two distinctly different types: (1) a board consensus resulting from directors' desires not to develop conflicts with peers, or (2) uncivil discourses based on political beliefs, especially when the CEO and board chair subscribe to different political parties. Example: A staunchly conservative board chair, after bombarding a liberal CEO with conservative materials, proceeded to voice his political positions at board meetings. The CEO became very uncomfortable, especially since the board chair was a significant donor.

Relationships on nonprofit boards are more prone to foster either of these types of environments because some boards meet only one to four times a year; interpersonal conflicts can more easily arise.

Relationships are often established through common and shared sets of beliefs and values. It is human nature to search for similarities and understanding in other people. But in the professional world, being (board leaders) often means forgoing easy validation of every decision, and recognizing instead the value of contradicting opinions and honest discussions. The danger of ignoring opposing professional views can be significant.

--Jean-Marc Levy (2013), "Value the Challenger in Chief," The Leading Edge

Two examples: The bankruptcy of the New York City Opera Company was evidently due to the failure of its board and management to effectively address its financial challenges. During the 2012 election season, a board chair with passion for an agency's mission wanted to informally raise donated personal money from some of his board peers who were politically aligned. He wanted to give the funds to the campaign of his favored local political candidate, a dynamic speaker, with the hope he might revise a tight schedule and speak at the charity's annual fundraising event. He received a storm of protests, and the project was dropped.

What to Do...

Acknowledge that some directors may be naysayers on a range of issues. This, however, is much better than encouraging rubber-stamping acceptance of a proposal to avoid conflict. In cases of uncivil discourse, board leadership must directly address the problem, perhaps even informally censuring those who are perpetrators. An infrequent board meeting schedule or other local interpersonal circumstances can lead to weak board bonding and to both or one of the distinctly different types of environments.

Those who engage in either of these activities may be subject to personal liabilities, if they have not acted in good faith and/or voted "yes" to please others and/or to avoid conflict. More importantly, they are not fulfilling their moral and governance responsibilities as board leaders.